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It is recommended that, if you plan to live in or travel in Central America for any length of time, you should try and learn some Spanish.
I had already done Spanish Immersion Classes in Tlaquepaque, Mexico.
But, I had one big problem: I could get them to understand me but, when they spoke back to me, I didn’t understand a word that they were saying!
When I first arrived in Livingston & El Estor after spending a few weeks in (English speaking) Belize, the Guatemalans just looked at me like stunned mullets.
I needed to go back to school … to learn some more …
I booked myself into an hotel in Panajachel, Lake Atitlan.
I booked 5 nights at a (big) discounted rate of GTQ90 / night.
I booked 5 nights from Thursday through Tuesday so that I could look around at the many Spanish Schools in the villages around Lake Atitlan.
I decided that I did not like Panajachel. For me, it lacked character.
I took a Lancha to San Marcos. San Marcos is well known as a bit of a ‘hippy town’ and they have a very good Spanish School there. The Spanish School in San Marcos does not have its own ‘accommodation package’, you need to find your accommodation yourself.
San Marcos was nice but the costs were high. I couldn’t find a decent Double Room with Private Bathroom for under GTQ200 / night and the Spanish Classes were GTQ1000 / week (for five 4 hour 1-on-1 classes). The restaurants and bars were a bit pricey too.
I decided to take a chance on San Pedro. San Pedro is known to be a bit of a ‘Party Town’. Several of the Spanish Schools in San Pedro do accommodation packages where you can stay in a Homestay with a local family, get 3 meals for 6 days a week, and pay GTQ85 / night (shared bathroom ) or GTQ115 / week (private bathroom).
I wanted to study for only 3 hours each day and to have my own apartment (excluding meals). The Orbita Spanish School was the only one on my shortlist that had this option. I took a punt and booked my accommodation and classes with them.
Most Schools allow you to do either 3 or 4 hours a day (of 1-on-1 tutoring) with the 3 hour option usually only available in the afternoons. In Tlaquepaque, I did 4 hours each day but found it tiring … so, this time, I chose to do 3 hours each day.
My cost was GTQ1,250 / week for my Studio Apartment and 5 days of Spanish lessons (3 hours per day). This broke down to GTQ665 / week for the lessons (GTQ133 for each day of lessons) and GTQ585 / week (GTQ84 / day) for my Studio Apartment.
The Schools prefer that you start on a Monday but they are flexible and you can start any day of the week. I decided to start on the Monday. I checked out of my Panajachel accommodation 2 days early (no refund) and headed for San Pedro Sunday lunchtime.
The Lanchas leave from Panajachel to San Pedro about every 20-30 minutes. The Lancha goes directly to San Pedro with no stop-offs at the other villages around the lake.
ABOUT SAN PEDRO:
The elevation is 1,597 metres (5,240 ft).
THE DIFFERENT AREAS OF SAN PEDRO:
Area A is where you will find one of the most popular Backpacker hotels: the Playa Linda.
There isn’t much in Area A. There are very few restaurants and bars. It is a reasonably quiet area. It is about a 15-20 minute walk from Playa Linda to the Boat Dock.
At the entrance to the alleyways, you will find the La Terazza which has a nice rooftop terrace, reasonably priced meals and 1 liter bottles of beer for as little as GTQ15.
Area B is still reasonably quiet but has many more options than Area A.
Area C can get pretty noisy at night.
ABOUT THE ORBITA SPANISH SCHOOL:
The Orbita Spanish School is on the lakefront road west of the Boat Dock.
The premises are not as ‘fancy’ as the Spanish School in San Marcos.
They can take 15 students at a time and they spread the students out on 1-on-1 tables across 4 floors. Each floor has no more than four 1-on-1 classes happening at any one time.
I had my Tigo SIMcard that I bought on my trip to Livingston & Estor. I initially bought a 1 month ‘Mes Social’ pre-paid plan with 1.5GBs of data. The total price including the SIMcard was GTQ166.
I bought another 1 month 2GB Data Plan in Panajachel.
The network operators in Guatemala are always having TRIPLE specials … at least 1 day each week. If you ‘top up’, e.g. with GTQ100, on a TRIPLE day you get an additional GTQ200 of local call and texting credits. On some days they TRIPLE your ‘credit’ if you top up online with a credit card. Alas, their online system does not accept New Zealand credit cards.
My Tigo card didn’t get a signal in Rio Dulce / El Golfete but I have had no problem with it elsewhere in Guatemala.
WHERE TO STAY:
There are plenty of cheap places in and around town. They are not all listed in the (normal) online search engines.
I suggest that GRANDPAckers find somewhere in or close to Area B. This will give you easy access to Areas C & D as well as limit the number of times that you are walking up and down the steep hill to Area D … you will need to take the odd trip to Area D to stock up with groceries in the cheaper Superminis and at the Fruit Market.
Accommodation-wise, this is typical of what you find … this is for 1 night in February 2017 …
HOTELS & HOSTELS (Nightly Rates):
PLEASE NOTE: Hotel and Hostel search sites sometimes display prices EXCLUSIVE of TAXES. You may have to add up to 22% to the displayed price to get the final price.
VACATION RENTALS (Weekly Rates):
If you plan to stay a week or more, another good option is to use AirBnB or TRIPADVISOR.COM to book a Holiday Rental / Vacation Rental.
Holiday Rentals are usually rented by the week. A comparable search reveals the following … please note that these prices are in US$s …
Vacation Rentals are, usually, displayed INCLUSIVE of TAXES but EXCLUSIVE of any Security Deposit (if required). BUT, the displayed price may be EXCLUSIVE of the host site’s Service Fees (which can add as much as 16%).
In S.E. Asia, I wouldn’t touch AirBnB with a barge pole … in my opinion and experience the accommodation that you find is an absolute rip off. However, in Guatemala they are definitely worth a look.
Once again, Tripadvisor Vacation Rentals disappointed in Guatemala … Mexico seems to be much more suited to Tripadvisor than Guatemala.
Not all of the Double Rooms advertised have Private Bathrooms … you will need to check the details of each hotel.
Remember that a decent Breakfast with Coffee / Tea is worth GTQ20 (US$3) each. Take this into account when you see a hotel advertise a Free Breakfast. But, read the reviews, some Free Breakfasts can be as simple as toast and jam.
As always, if you are booking your hotel online, start your search early and wait for deep discounts.
Otherwise, you can walk around and inquire at the unlisted hotels. You should be able to get a Double Room with two Double Beds, a Private Bathroom (with hot water shower), cable TV (mostly Spanish speaking channels) with a kitchenette or access to a shared kitchen for GTQ80-100 (less than US$15) / night.
The Studio Apartment in the Orbita was not available for my first week but was available for my 2nd and 3rd weeks.
ORBITA SPANISH SCHOOL – 1ST APARTMENT:
Alas, the wifi was poor (which is a problem for me with my GRANDPAcking work). The in-room wifi signal was unusable and the signal on the terrace was only just good enough.
ORBITA SPANISH SCHOOL – STUDIO APARTMENT:
At the start of my second week at the Orbita, I moved into the Orbita’s on-site Studio Apartment.
The in-room wifi was poor to start with but they fixed it whilst I was there.
HOTEL JARACHI’K – DOUBLE ROOM:
I decided to stick around San Pedro for another week or two to soak in the ambience … and do some Spanish notes revision.
I walked in and around Area B to see what I could find. I was looking for an 8 night deal. This is what I could get ‘walking in off the street’:
- Mikaso: a small, single bed room with ensuite for GTQ150 / night
- Amanecer: a double room with garden view for GTQ300 / night
- Pinocchio: a basic double room with TV and breakfast for GTQ100 / night
- Zoola: an average double room for GTQ160 / night (discounted down from GTQ210)
- Jarachi’k: an average double room with TV and breakfast for GTQ100 / night
I chose the Jarachi’k. His starting price was GTQ120 but I asked for a discount for 8 nights and he dropped immediately to GTQ100 (US$12.50). On the inside of the door, the ‘rack rate’ is listed as GTQ220 for single occupancy and GTQ270 for double occupancy … so, on that basis, I got a good deal.
The bed was comfortable and the hot water shower had a reasonable amount of water pressure (better than the rooms at the Orbita).
The outdoor restaurant was cosy with 6 tables in a garden setting and served reasonably priced food (for a San Pedro restaurant). They had a ‘meal special’ each day for about GTQ30 (such as Spaghetti Bolognaise or Green Curry) and a Happy Hour each day from 4pm to 7pm with a 1 liter Gallo going for only GTQ24.
The Jarachi’k got me into Area B and amongst the many bars and restaurants where the more mature expats hang out.
I am convinced (in my own mind) that I could have found a nicer place for 2 people (probably including breakfast) for GTQ150 / night (US$20) if I wanted to … but the Jarachi’k suited me at GTQ100.
I know that I could have got a large (but basic) Triple room with Cable TV and ensuite at the Lolita (just around the corner) for GTQ90 (without breakfast). A breakfast is worth GTQ25 each.
It just goes to show what good value the room at the Spanish School was … with the kitchenette my breakfasts of Yogurt, Muesli & Fruit with filtered coffee averaged only about GTQ8 / day.
Have a look yourself:
You can walk everywhere.
You can grab a Tuk Tuk and get anywhere around San Pedro for GTQ5.
As a Rule Of Thumb, Tuk Tuks should cost GTQ5 for the first km plus GTQ2.5 per km thereafter. For example, to go 10kms you should negotaie a price of GTQ5 + 9xGTQ2.5 = GTQ27.50 (i.e. less than GTQ30).
There are plenty of Tourist restaurants to choose from. Prices tend to get cheaper as you move further away from the Boat Dock.
You will find some small bakeries around but be careful. They will try and charge you GTQ5 for Bread Buns and Small Cakes; the locals pay GTQ1. Take control … offer them GTQ1 … don’t ask for the price as they will just ask you for GTQ5.
There are a couple of places that do Brunch ‘specials’ on the weekends.
The Mikaso does an ‘all-you-can-eat’ buffet Brunch on Saturdays for GTQ40.
Another good place is the El Barrion that does a 4-course Brunch (10am to 2pm) on Saturdays and Sundays (including unlimited coffee) for GTQ40.
This is followed by Soup of the Day (sorry, no picture).
This Brunch is massive and big enough for 2 GRANDPAckers.
The El Barrio might frown on this suggestion but, for some couples, this Brunch can be shared. If I was still with my ex, she would have enjoyed the Fruit Starter with the Pancakes … I would have been happy with the Soup and sharing some of my Omelette.
For a cheap Lunch you will need to get to the market.
You can find a ‘Comida del Dia’ (Meal of the Day) inside the central market for GTQ12 (vegetarian) and GTQ15 (with meat). The downside is the number of stray dogs that hang around watching you eat hoping that you will throw them scraps. If you stay and eat there, the tables are not that clean either … you are, probably, best to ‘takeaway’.
Surprisingly, there are very few street stalls. More surprisingly, some of the best are in Area A on the Boat Dock road.
Around the High Town (Area D) you can, also, find local eateries / takeaways with your usual 3xTacos for GTQ12 and Tortas ‘Mixto’ for GTQ17.
There is a famous BBQ on Sundays that starts at 1pm that has a big menu. BBQ meals typically range from GTQ60-GTQ100 (depending on which meat you have) and include unlimited side dishes. BUT, get there early … 100s of people can turn up and they can stop taking orders early.
You will have to shop around to pay less than GTQ40 for a main. Again, your best options are around the market in Area D.
The El Barrio does Chicken Wings on Monday night for GTQ2 each as long as you spend at least GTQ25 on drinks. The Chicken Wings come with a choice of dipping sauces … you must try the blue cheese. So, you can get a 1 liter bottle of Brahva Extra with 10 Chicken Wings for GTQ45.
Expect to pay GTQ20 for a typical Breakfast with Coffee / Tea. Expect to pay GTQ15-20 for a cheap Lunch. Expect to pay GTQ30 for a cheap Dinner. This is ‘existence level’ eating.
Alternatively, if you have a kitchenette, you can buy groceries from the local Superminis and fruit from the central market (see Shopping, below, for typical costs).
The standard price for a 350ml bottle of local beer (like Gallo) is GTQ15-20 … almost everywhere. You get more value buying 1 liter bottles: a big Brahva should cost GTQ20, a big Brahva Extra GTQ25, and a big Gallo GTQ30.
You will find some places that do Happy Hour. Most end at 5:00pm.
You can buy a 1 liter bottle of Brahva in a Supermini for GTQ10 with a GTQ2 deposit on the bottle.
YOUR HEALTH & SAFETY:
There is no reason to feel unsafe here. But, as always, exercise normal levels of caution … don’t make yourself an obvious target.
The main problem is Petty Theft … which is a ‘typical’ problem in Central America.
WHERE TO GO / WHAT TO SEE / WHAT TO DO:
Activities for tourists include hikes to the top of the San Pedro volcano or the Mayan Face, studying Spanish, partying in the restaurant sector down by the lake, volunteering, and learning local crafts.
The hikes start early in the morning (e.g. 5am) and the typical cost with a guide is GTQ65-100.
AROUND THE LAKE:
The boats leave about every 20-30 minutes with the last boats leaving at about 5:30pm in every direction. Most Lanchas leave from the Boat Dock in Area C. The Lancha to Santiago leaves from the Boat Dock in Area B.
MONEY / PRICES / SHOPPING:
There are only 2-3 ATMs around town. Two of which would not accept my NZ Debit Card. The one that did was down at the Boat Dock.
The cash withdrawal limit is GTQ2000 per transaction and you get charged a whopping GTQ45 for the privilege. This is just at the Guatemalan end … you will get charged by your home bank too.
Superminis / Fruit Market:
There are a couple of Superminis around but they are small and not the cheapest. You are best to bring any ‘rarities’ that you need with you. The cheaper ones are in Area D.
- 1 liter Natural Yogurt: GTQ27
- 1 kilo bag of Granola (their Muesli): GTQ30
- 1x large Banana or 2 x small Bananas: GTQ1
- 3x large Mangoes or 6x small Mangoes: GTQ10
- 1x Egg: GTQ1
- 1x Bread Roll: GTQ1
- 460g Processed Sliced Ham: GTQ18
- 5 Gallons of Water: GTQ10 (plus GTQ15 deposit on the bottle)
- 40g Rolling Tobacco: GTQ28
- 50 Cigarette Papers: GTQ10
- 1/2 Ounce Bag of Marijuana Heads: GTQ150
WHEN TO GO:
Otherwise, Lake Atitlan has a very stable 23-26 degrees all year round.
But it does get cool in the evenings … especially December through February. It is not T-Shirt weather in the evenings. You will want to bring some warm tops for the colder evenings.
From Lake Atitlan, I head north west towards South Western Mexico.
I will tell you more about that in a future post.
Getting your accommodation as part of your Spanish Lessons ‘package’ is a good way to get a good price. The Homestay options (which include meals) are particularly good value. The self catering options are also good value compared to the cost of hotels elsewhere.
San Pedro has plenty to offer and many GRANDPAckers will enjoy spending some time here. It is worth a look.
It would be easy to spend several weeks here or, in deed, in any of the small villages around the lake.
Lake Atitlan is definitely a nice place to stop a while to do some Spanish classes.